2009 highlights need for change


THE TIME has come to consider fundamental constitutional, administrative and political change. Three times in the history of the State, the nature of our parliamentary democracy and inadequate government structures have wreaked havoc on the economy and on society. It cannot be allowed to recur. Sorting out the present fiscal mess will mean little unless reforms go far beyond the banking and regulatory systems and embrace the very nature of government. Citizens with no responsibility for the recession are being asked to fund recovery. They are angry. And they deserve at least the promise of change.

Two ferocious budgets were the defining aspects of 2009, echoing the Government’s disastrous handling of the economy during the boom years, along with a credit crunch that nearly wrecked the banking system and brought about a collapse in construction and in property prices. The economic outlook has brightened somewhat for 2010 but high unemployment, industrial unrest and political nervousness continue to threaten stability.

In view of the scale of its difficulties, the minority Coalition Government showed considerable resolve. It secured passage of the Lisbon Treaty at the second time of asking. It propped up the banks by guaranteeing deposits; passed controversial Nama legislation and undertook to buy overvalued properties with taxpayers’ money. But many of those responsible for the banking fiasco remained in place. As government revenues went into free fall, it introduced income and pension levies in April and followed that up with public spending cuts of €4 billion in December.

It was a roller-coaster ride from which Finance Minister Brian Lenihan emerged with an enhanced reputation. The same could not be said for Taoiseach Brian Cowen. In charge of Fianna Fáil at a time of its lowest opinion poll ratings and having suffered serious mid-year losses in local, European and by-elections, he struggled to provide leadership. He compounded that negative image at year’s end by appearing to accept a trade-off between unpaid leave days and pay cuts for the public servants. A reversal of that position caused union officials to believe they had been misled.

Cuts of €4 billion in public spending by a Government running a deficit of €25 billion were necessary but harsh. Social welfare entitlements and public service pay were reduced. Under pressure, unions have arranged disruptive action for the coming year and declared an end to social partnership. Their members feel unfairly targeted by Government and let down by their officials. It is a recipe for misguided militancy.

Tentative ministerial suggestions for cuts in commercial semi-State wages and the imposition of public service reforms worsened a volatile situation. A more measured approach will be required if Fianna Fáil and the Green Party are to retain their cohesion. Detailed advance planning, financial stress testing of major projects and the introduction of administrative and political reforms are urgently needed. But appetite for electoral and Dáil reform – apart from peripheral issues like unvouched Oireachtas expenses and allowances – hardly exists. Fine Gael has confined itself to the long-term abolition of the Seanad and a reduction in the number of TDs while the Labour Party favours an increase of 50 per cent in Dáil sitting days.

In Northern Ireland, the year ended much as it began with the Democratic Unionists Party and Sinn Féin locked in disagreement over the transfer of justice and policing powers from Westminster. Growing activity by dissident republicans, the murder of two British soldiers and the targeting of PSNI officers failed to persuade Peter Robinson that the peace process was in trouble, as he concentrated on electoral challenges to the DUP. Meanwhile, an exasperated Martin McGuinness threatened that Sinn Féin would withdraw from the Executive. Elsewhere, Mark Durkan announced his intention to stand down as SDLP leader in the New Year while Reg Empey established a formal alliance between the Ulster Unionist Party and the British Conservatives.

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The Catholic Church and its agencies were convulsed by sexual scandal and the physical abuse of children in its institutions, outlined by the Ryan and the Murphy reports. Confirmation that members of the hierarchy had deliberately withheld information from the Garda Síochána and had allowed the sexual abuse of children by priests to continue in order to protect their authority and their assets, horrified the public. An unwillingness by the relevant bishops to accept immediate responsibility for what had happened, compounded the offence. As a consequence, debate is now opening up on church/State relations and the role of the Catholic Church in Irish society.

It is not an issue this deeply unpopular Government is anxious to confront. But the same holds true for Fine Gael and Labour, which have adopted traditional, populist approaches to most issues. Fine Gael supplanted Fianna Fáil as the largest party in the State during the year while Labour concentrated its efforts on wooing middle-class voters and public sector workers. They seem destined for government.

In recent months, both parties appeared to be “holding back” as they waited for Fianna Fáil and the Green Party to deliver the most unappetising budget. There is a lurking suspicion the Coalition may not have the “bottle” to finish an unpopular job. It is a perception that keeps some Fianna Fáil Ministers going. If they can show the necessary guts and determination to get the country back on track, might not public opinion change? And that, of course, raises the question of Mr Cowen’s leadership.